Promoting Dental Health in Small Herbivores: Five Things You Can Do


Acquired dental disease is an important problem in pet rabbits and rodents. Clinical management of dental disease is complex, frequently involving invasive technical procedures, therefore it is preferable to promote dental health, rather than treating dental disease.

Rodents are a large diverse group with over 2,000 living species ranging from the 5-gram pygmy mouse (Petromyscus collinus) to the 70-kg capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris). Order Rodentia includes several suborders including, but not limited to, Hystricomorpha, Myomorpha and Sciuromorpha (Table 1).


Table 1. Rodent dentition

Suborders Species Dentition
Hystricomorpha Guinea pigs, chinchillas, degus, porcupines, capybaras and relatives Elodont incisors +
elodont cheek teeth
Myomorpha Mice, rats, gerbils and relatives Elodont incisors +
anelodont cheek teeth
Sciuromorpha Prairie dogs, squirrels and relatives Elodont incisors +
anelodont cheek teeth

Not all rodent teeth are the same. Depending on the species involved, incisors and/or premolars and molars may be elodont or open-rooted. Elodont dentition continues to erupt throughout the life of the animal. Members of suborder Hystricomorpha such as guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus), chinchillas (Chinchilla lanigera) and degus (Octodon degus) possess elodont incisors and elodont cheek teeth (Fig 1). Rabbits possess dentition that is similar to hystricomorph rodents. In fact, rabbit teeth have been reported to grow at approximately 10-12 cm per year. This continual growth of dentition puts hystricomorph rodents and rabbits at increased risk for acquired dental disease (Fig 1).

Elodont dentition increases the risk of acquired dental disease in rabbits and rodents

Figure 1. Elodont dentition increases the risk of acquired dental disease in rabbits and rodents. Shown here a “spike” on the premolar of a rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Image provided by D. Crossley. Click image to enlarge.

Rats, mice, gerbils, hamsters, squirrels and their relatives possess elodont incisors paired with anelodont premolars or molars (or cheek teeth). Anelodont teeth grow for a brief period, but then stop erupting. Therefore malocclusion and acquired dental disease of cheek teeth is uncommon in myomorph and sciuromorph species.


Five things you can do…

Five things you can do to promote dental health in small herbivores



Recommend Hay

Adult rabbits require a diet rich in crude fiber and abrasive silicates so recommend pesticide-free grasses, hay and other vegetation.


Rabbit with gnawing toy


Recommend Gnawing Toys

Offer rabbits and rodents chew toys such as pesticide-free wood like willow and cardboard. Items to chew on are a behavioral necessity for rabbits and rodents, but they will also minimize or prevent cage bar chewing. The repeated trauma that can arise from vigorous cage bar chewing can promote acquired dental disease, particularly in prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.) and other squirrel-like rodents.


Rodent oral exam


Use the Proper Equipment

Oral examination is challenging in rabbits and rodents, particularly in the conscious animal. Otoscopes are frequently used in awake animals, however the bivalve nasal speculum can also be used CAREFULLY with PRACTICE.


Endoscopic view


Perform Detailed Oral Exams

To perform a complete, detailed oral examination, rabbits and rodents must be sedated or anesthetized. By the same token, whenever a rabbit or rodent must be anesthetized or sedated, perform a more detailed oral exam as long as clinical status allows.


Purebred netherland dwarf rabbit


Warn Potential Owners of Breed Predispositions

Although it is rare for owners to consult with a veterinarian BEFORE they select an exotic pet, some rabbit breeds are associated with specific health concerns. Purebred dwarf rabbits and lop rabbits are prone to congenital prognathism of the mandible or brachygnathism of the maxilla. These conditions can predispose individuals to clinical dental disease.



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Crossley DA. Oral biology and disorders of lagomorphs. Vet Clin North Am Exot Anim Pract 6(3):629-659, 2003.

Lennox AM. Anatomy and physiology of elodont species. Proc Am Board Vet Pract, 2010.

Lennox AM. Dentistry of rodents. Proc Western Vet Conf, 2006.

Quesenberry KE, Carpenter JW (eds). Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents: Clinical Medicine and Surgery, 3rd ed. St. Louis: Elsevier Saunders; 2012.

Mitchell MA, Tully TN (eds). Manual of Exotic Pet Practice. St. Louis: Saunders; 2009.

Rodentia. Animal Diversity Web. Available at Accessed on February 15, 2012.

To cite this page:

Pollock C. Promoting dental health in small herbivores: Five things you can do. February 12, 2012. LafeberVet Web site. Available at